Less secrecy could help astronomy stop the bullying and harassment within its ranks

November 22, 2016 by Michael J. I. Brown, The Conversation
More needs to be done to protect people in astronomy from those who seek to abuse or harass others. Credit: Shutterstock/Allexxandar

Shocking allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual assault at CSIRO's Astronomy and Space Sciences (CASS) division were revealed on Sunday by the ABC's Background Briefing program.

In CASS alone, the Radio National broadcast said there have been 16 investigations into professional misconduct since 2008, including a allegation that was referred to police.

Many Australian astronomers, myself included, have been reeling between grief and anger since hearing the broadcast. The Astronomical Society of Australia Council (of which I am a member), has condemned what has taken place at CASS and called for safe workplaces for scientists.

The lives and careers of many superb astronomers have been damaged by what happened at CASS. And yet much of this has been hidden from view, including from friends and colleagues.

The ASA’s statement following the Background Briefing report. Credit: Astronomical Society of Australia
Damage and consequences

With the benefit of hindsight, one can see something was amiss at CASS. Several prominent female astronomers have left CASS during the past five years, including astronomers with coveted tenured positions.

Several were interviewed by Background Briefing, and their pain was evident.

What has happened to the perpetrators of bullying and harassment? That is less clear.

In one instance the perpetrator was counselled and had an "adverse finding" placed on their file, but until Sunday's program even this limited information had not been disclosed. The person remains on staff at CASS.

When Background Briefing's Hagar Cohen asked CSIRO executive director David Williams about the consequences of this case, he responded:

"I'm not prepared or not allowed to talk about those issues […] They're confidential staff issues, and that's the way it remains, and that's the way all organisations work in these areas."

This lack of clarity is all too common when it comes to bullying and harassment in academia. Indeed, a legitimate concern is perpetrators face no real consequences at all.

Former UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy has been accused of sexual harassment stretching back decades. In 2015, UC Berkeley found he violated campus sexual harassment policies, and in a statement the university said his initial punishment was "zero tolerance policy regarding future behaviour and by stripping him of the procedural protections that all other faculty members enjoy". In other words, don't do it again.

It was only after public outcry, including from colleagues, that Marcy stepped down from his position.

While no longer welcome at UC Berkeley, Marcy's retirement entitles him to be an emeritus professor, a (usually) prestigious title.

Who's at risk?

How does one protect oneself, junior staff and students from harassment and bullying?

Many institutions have policies or management that refuse to disclose the occurrence of misconduct, let alone reveal who perpetrators are.

There are real risks to individuals and institutions who break with the secrecy surrounding harassment.

Astronomer Tim Slater, who was found to have harassed students and staff, is currently suing the University of Arizona for defamation because documents relevant to his case were leaked.

In the UK, astronomer Carole Mundell was unsuccessfully sued when she revealed a colleague was the alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment at Liverpool John Moores University.

A consequence of all this is the development of "whisper networks," where names of harassers are passed between trusted individuals. Scientists keep lists of names (often memorised), steering junior staff and students away from danger.

This was something raised by Cohen when she interviewed Australian astronomer Bryan Gaensler for the Background Briefing report.

Hagar Cohen: How many people are on your black list?

Bryan Gaensler: I personally know of about 20 senior tenured male astronomers who've had some accusations against them. Whether the accusations are substantiated or not, I can't say, because I haven't participated in the investigations, but I know of about 20 people.

By definition, such "whisper networks" are patchy at best.

Prior to Background Briefing's revelations, many Australian astronomers were completely unaware that a CASS staff member had been accused of sexual assault, which was referred to police.

Many (perhaps most) Australian astronomers remain unaware of his identity, and may be sending junior staff and students to work with him at CASS.

Removing the absolute secrecy surrounding harassment cases could provide pressure for change.

Yale University provides anonymised summaries of harassment cases, including consequences for perpetrators. It provides the Yale community with a measure of the extent of the harassment and the consequences for it, while protecting the identity of victims.

Unfortunately few (if any) Australian universities and institutes have adopted such an open approach.

Why now?

International astronomy has been rocked by these harassment scandals, including the cases at UC Berkeley, Caltech, the University of Arizona, Liverpool John Moores University and now CSIRO.

What is going on? Is astronomy particularly prone to and bullying? I hope not.

But the reliance of students and junior staff on the benevolence of senior scientists and academics may suppress reporting of harassment.

Senior scientists provide expert knowledge, access to facilities, introductions to potential collaborators and (critically) write reference letters for job applications. This concentration of power may lead to abuses going unreported.

I sincerely hope these recent scandals reflect a new intolerance for workplace bullying and . Victims, their colleagues and professional organisations are less willing to accept misconduct and the destruction it causes.

Astronomers, familiar with collaboration and outreach, are working together to put public pressure on institutions that fail to provide safe workplaces their colleagues and students.

Explore further: Who thinks only attractive women suffer sexual harassment?

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15 comments

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Display comments: newest first

RNP
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016
@bschott

Thank you guys for the objectivity on this one. (rating)


We agree with you and you take a cheap shot. Shameful behaviour!!
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 22, 2016
This is obviously some of that fake news we heard about recently, it must be because scientists operate on a higher level from the rest of us pleebs. They are inhuman in their perfection and inability to be compromised from facts and funding.
jonesdave
3.2 / 5 (9) Nov 22, 2016
Yikes, sexually harassing women, by use of a position of power! Shame on the b*stards.
Thankfully, the public would never vote a person who did that sort of thing into a position of power. Would they?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 22, 2016
"In CASS alone, the Radio National broadcast said there have been 16 investigations into professional misconduct since 2008, including a sexual assault allegation that was referred to police."

-Another unfortunate consequence of australias draconian gun bans.
RNP
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016
@bschott
OK. Appreciated.
RNP
3 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2016
@bschott
SORRY!!!! A mis-click and I have seriously embarrassed myself. Abject apologies.
barakn
3 / 5 (4) Nov 22, 2016
"In CASS alone, the Radio National broadcast said there have been 16 investigations into professional misconduct since 2008, including a sexual assault allegation that was referred to police."

-Another unfortunate consequence of australias draconian gun bans.

If that were the case, then Australian sexual assault rates would higher than in America, but they are virtually identical. Because most rapes are not perpetrated by strangers, guns are of little value.
jonesdave
3.7 / 5 (6) Nov 22, 2016
-Another unfortunate consequence of australias draconian gun bans.


Yep, look at their rates of gun crime and compare it to the US. Or Britain's. Or New Zealand's. Or Canada's. Spot the problem here? One of the aforementioned countries has a serious problem with gun crime. The rest don't. Wonder if you can spot which one? Yep, the one who seem to think it is a constitutional right to carry around weapons that most countries would only give to their armed forces. Still, why should the rest of us give a damn?
F*ck 'em, I say.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016

Because most rapes are not perpetrated by strangers, guns are of little value
"2-time rapist shot dead by ex-girlfriend after violating protective order
7/18/16"

"As many as 200,000 women use a gun every year to defend themselves against sexual abuse.[4]"

-I'm getting tired of debating people who don't know what they're talking about.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2016

Yep, look at their rates of gun crime and compare it to the US. Or Britain's. Or New Zealand's. Or Canada's. Spot the problem here? One of the aforementioned countries has a serious problem with gun crime. The rest don't. Wonder if you can spot which one? Yep, the one who seem to think it is a constitutional right to carry around weapons that most countries would only give to their armed forces. Still, why should the rest of us give a damn?
And these are all lies. It's not your fault, you've been lied to by the same people who told you that trump would never get elected.

By the way my initial comment was sarcasm. Strange that I have to tell you guys?
jonesdave
3 / 5 (6) Nov 23, 2016
And these are all lies.


Sorry, who are you calling a liar? Want to see the relevant statistics? Careful who you call a liar. Especially when the facts don't back it up.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 23, 2016
And these are all lies.


Sorry, who are you calling a liar? Want to see the relevant statistics? Careful who you call a liar. Especially when the facts don't back it up.
You first. Aping lies makes you a liar as well.

But let me warn you, I'm not going to be dragged into an endless slapfest re lies from you gunphobes. It's pointless after all. But hey - knock yourself out.
gkam
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 23, 2016
It is all fantasy for those in the UK, who are not allowed to have guns. It is something we should do here.

Bullies are cowards acting out. Conservatives usually are the bullies.
geokstr
3 / 5 (2) Nov 25, 2016
Yikes, sexually harassing women, by use of a position of power! Shame on the b*stards.
Thankfully, the public would never vote a person who did that sort of thing into a position of power. Would they?

Yeah, that sexual predator and accused rapist, known to have abused his position of authority to gain sexual favors from hundreds of women behind his wife's back, who lost his license to practice law for perjury in one sexual harrassment case, and later settled for $750,000 in another, almost got back into the White House...again. Whew! That was too close.

But you weren't referring to Bill Clinton, were you? That's right, the radical feminists forgave him all of that and instituted the "one-grope" rule to absolve him because he protected their "right" to kill that cancerous growth in their bellies for their convenience.

If it wasn't for hypocrisy and double standards, thr Marxists (a/k/a Democrats) would have no standards at all.
geokstr
1 / 5 (1) Nov 25, 2016
It is all fantasy for those in the UK, who are not allowed to have guns. It is something we should do here.

Bullies are cowards acting out. Conservatives usually are the bullies.

You're a joke.

Political correctness permeates our society, destroying lives for an innocent slip. Perceived violations of campus speech codes will ruin a person's life and academic record. Lawsuits to intimidate opponents of Marxism are rampant. Social Justice Warriors scour the internet to find targets to subject to online sh*tstorms. The IRS harasses Obama's opponents to keep them from organizing against his re-election. The Wikileaks emails proved that Robert Creamer, who visited the White House 342 times in the last 8 years and reported to the DNC, organized all the thugs and violence against Trump. This list could go on and on.

All examples of massive bullying, all perpetrated by the LEFT. Alinsky made bullying an art form, and Obama and Hillary both use his tactics..

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